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Human unwillingness to surmount the pandemic means it’s unlikely we will stop global warming


If brilliant Boston and the supposedly clever state surrounding it can’t get their climate remediation and preparedness acts together, how are less wealthy parts of the country supposed to manage the job?


Scenes from the 9/9/19 Cambridge City Council hearing on parking space disposition for the disputed Sullivan Courthouse development
Scenes from the 9/9/19 Cambridge City Council hearing on parking space disposition for the disputed Sullivan Courthouse development

How Cambridge can put public need before private greed


A five-hour city council hearing can really get you thinking.


As I sat watching the latest chapter in the East Cambridge courthouse saga unfold at city hall on Monday, I mulled over what it would take to start moving the city away from dependence on rubber-stamping massive commercial developments and toward Cambridge government advocating development in the public interest based on the needs of its working- and middle-class residents. Who remain a significant percentage of its population even after decades of gentrification and displacement.


Because the dozens of locals who testified against city government leasing the 420 public parking spaces that developer Leggat McCall Properties needs to be able to proceed with its plan to convert the publicly owned 22-story Sullivan Courthouse into yet another high rent commercial office building—a clear majority of those who spoke—said one of the biggest problems they see with the contested deal is that neither city nor state government ever considered doing anything with the structure other than trying to sell it off to the highest commercial bidder. Given that Cambridge city government is looking for more easy (if insufficient, relative to the tremendous wealth being made by major corporations doing business in the city) tax money from more commercial developments, and state government is just looking to sell the property with a minimum of fuss. Without trying to get the kind of money that the property is actually worth in the red-hot local real estate market.


It’s not bad enough that the now-defunct Middlesex County government dumped the much-hated building on East Cambridge a half-century back, but now both city and state governments are squaring off against the large numbers of Cantabrigians who have long wanted to see the courthouse property used to build more affordable housing units. Something desperately needed by the thousands of people now on public housing waiting lists. 


This is because people who believe very strongly that corporations should run the show in our society—neoliberals, as they’re commonly called—occupy most of the positions in all the key departments, committees, and elected bodies that make decisions about development and taxation in cities like Cambridge nationwide. 


So my question to myself as I sat watching the fray in the council chamber was: What kind of political movement would it take to ensure that public need comes before private greed in the so-called “People’s Republic”? How can ordinary people make that mocking appellation into a more democratic reality?


Based upon the decades of labor and community advocacy that I’ve done (sometimes overlapping my many years as a journalist), I decided that it will take a well-coordinated effort of committed denizens to really change the focus of Cambridge’s development strategy.   


Specifically, it will take the formation of a network of people who believe in the importance of a public development focus for the city that has the ability to run neighborhood organizing, education, political pressure, electoral, and public relations campaigns simultaneously. For the years it would take to change the way development is planned and executed. 


A quick look at each of these campaign areas is thus in order.


Neighborhood Organizing

There can be no successful grassroots political movement without a strong base of active supporters. Particularly when trying to spark a sea change in an area like development policy. So an early initiative of any network trying to challenge the status quo in such a major way has to be recruiting members from every neighborhood in the city. People who are willing to go door to door to talk to their neighbors, donate money to build their organization, and do all the other work necessary to win enough political power to achieve their movement’s goals. Eventually forming neighborhood committees representing every part of Cambridge. 



It will take a lot of education to convince residents that changing Cambridge’s development focus to producing public goods—like massive amounts of genuinely affordable housing—is a better deal for the city than the current model of chasing after commercial developers, lightly taxing what they build while keeping property taxes low (placating corporations and wealthy homeowners) then disbursing the still-significant funds collected to provide somewhat better services to residents than most other American cities can. Such education can only take place after lots of research has been done on best practices for public development and debate has taken place among advocates about the right kind of public development to add to the city’s current commercial-heavy mix. This, needless to say, will take a good deal of work on the part of advocates with the appropriate professional backgrounds.


Political Pressure

This is the group of activities that most people associate with grassroots political movements. Getting big teams of advocates out on the streets with placards and bullhorns. Filling the city council chamber with testifiers. Facing off with any open opposition. Dogging recalcitrant politicians. Basically all the adventurous stuff. Which is necessary and useful—done carefully. But there’s more to a political movement’s pressure campaign than public standouts. There is also the long hard grind of sending small teams of knowledgeable advocates to the meetings of the kinds of city committees, commissions, and boards that have a lot of power in the development process. Notably, the powerful Cambridge Planning Board. Such specialist teams will need to understand the inner workings of municipal government to inform the political movement’s strategy, to better target tactical street team actions, and to map out appointed positions that will need to be filled with advocates once the movement is ready to take political power—in elections. 


Electoral Challenges

If the ultimate goal of the political movement I’m outlining is to change Cambridge’s development orientation from serving commercial developers to serving the needs of working- and middle-class residents, the penultimate goal must be taking over city government. As long discussed by generations of political commentators, this is very difficult to do because of the city’s “Plan E” form of government. With a city council comprised of all at-large seats elected by a byzantine ranked-choice voting system, a weak mayor that is a councilor and a first among equals elected by the other councilors, and a powerful city manager—who is appointed by the council (but rarely challenged by it)—in charge of the budget and many city staffers. Nevertheless, it is possible for a well-organized movement to win a majority of city council seats. Then the new council can use its hire/fire power over the city manager to effect significant change. Even without switching to a different form of government. Which is probably more difficult to do than winning a majority on the council. However, even a majority reform city council is still going to have a very hard time changing Cambridge’s development focus without a well-organized, disciplined, and informed movement behind it. Because city government has many moving parts and is not operating in a vacuum. Commercial developers are among the most powerful political forces in America and are more than capable of blitzing a rebel city government with more lawsuits and pressure from allied politicians at the state and federal level than it can handle. Followed by bankrolling the election of a more “friendly” pro-corporate council. A mere two years after a reform council is seated. So a movement council would not just have to win power once, but stay in power for many terms. A tall order to be sure, but a necessary one. To do that, a political movement for public development will have to win not only the ground war of electoral politics but also the air war of public opinion.


Public Relations

As I observed at Monday’s hearing, some East Cambridge residents were stampeded into action on behalf of a powerful commercial developer over the last several days by a suspiciously well-timed scare campaign with a single talking point: that a building—the Sullivan Courthouse—widely known to contain asbestos still contained asbestos. Leading one resident to testify that “we can all die” [from asbestos exposure]. Which would not be the case even if the entire population of the neighborhood worked in an asbestos mine. Such hyperbole is the result of corporate propaganda. Pushed on East Cambridge across a variety of media by the faction with far deeper pockets than its grassroots opposition, according to other testifiers. Naturally, the risk of the empty toxic building to abutters is not zero even if sealed off from the outside to the extent that it is, and must be taken seriously. But to go from that assessment to saying that Cambridge city government must allow the sale of the courthouse to Leggat McCall Properties because only they can remediate the asbestos in the building is simply sophistry. Since the sale has not yet been completed, the courthouse is still owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and managed by the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM). As many testifiers stated Monday, if the building presents an environmental threat to the neighborhood then DCAMM has to take immediate steps to remediate that threat. If it fails to do so, then Cambridge city government is well within its rights to push the state to take appropriate action in defense of public health. Including filing lawsuits, if necessary. The kind of decisive action that city officials have uniformly (and tellingly) failed to take during the years this fight has gone on. All of which is to say that public relations work is much more important to the success of a political movement than it might seem to be at first blush. If the East Cambridge residents against the courthouse sale to Leggat had a team of volunteers with appropriate professional PR skills at their disposal, the latest tempest in a teapot argument in favor of the sale would have been seen as the propaganda it was by all but those most ideologically committed to that outcome. And its political effect would have been neutralized. So the future movement for development in the public interest cannot possibly succeed without just such a team.


Until Cambridge residents can build the necessary political movement, all actions against the dominance of commercial development in city politics will be defensive. Which is better than nothing. But not the game-changer that the city’s remaining working- and middle-class families need.


Regardless, the Cambridge City Council went into recess on the matter of leasing the 420 public parking spaces to Leggat at the end of the hearing. Kicking the can of the vote that will help decide the disposition of the disputed public property down the road another week or three. Even as residents committed to keeping that property public are threatening lawsuits over alleged violations in the city’s process to lease the spaces and other irregularities. The courthouse fight, then, is far from over.


9/11/19 Note: The Cambridge City Council continued the recessed hearing to Wednesday 9/18/19 at 3pm after the print edition of this column went to press.


Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.


Earth held up by a human hand in space


Calls for regional consortium of news outlets to improve and expand climate change coverage


Last month, during the fearsome heat wave that saw Boston temperatures soar to 98 degrees Fahrenheit for two days in a row, 400 chickens died in New Hampshire.


According to the Boston Globe, they succumbed to “heatstroke at Vernon Family Farm in Newfields, N.H., around 5 p.m. Saturday when the temperature peaked and the farm could not save them…” The article went on to explain that temperatures got up to 90 degrees in Newfields that day. But chickens cannot take heat over 106 degrees. And, despite the best efforts of the farm staff to keep them cool, the birds expired. 


A New Hampshire Union Leader article provided more detail. Farm owner Jeremiah Vernon said that the heat index (a measure of how hot it really feels when relative humidity is factored in with the actual air temperature) on his farm just after 5 p.m. on July 20 when the chickens died was over 110 degrees—and added that another southern NH farm lost 300 chickens the same day. He also mentioned that “the farm has spent about $2,000 to buy generators and circulation fans to help prevent illness in the event of another summer heat wave.” Something he had obviously never had to consider over the farm’s previous 10 years of operation. Several of which were each the hottest years on record in turn worldwide.


As 2018 was. And 2019 may be. June was the hottest month on record. And then July was, too. Global average temperatures are continuing to climb. Month by month. Year by year. There is some fluctuation. Some cooler months and years. But only cooler relative to the ever-hotter new normal. The general trend is upward. And the speed of that climb is accelerating.


Even so, the death of hundreds of chickens from overheating was an unusual enough occurrence to be worth reporting in major New England newspapers. But apparently not alarming enough to mention the role that global warming is playing in increasing the number and severity of hot days summer by summer. Despite happening in the same month that the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report, “Killer Heat in the United States: Climate Choices and the Future of Dangerously Hot Days.” Which used the best available scientific data to make the following predictions for New Hampshire:


Historically, there have been three days per year on average with a heat index above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This would increase to 23 days per year on average by midcentury and 49 by the century’s end. Limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] above pre-industrial levels could reduce the frequency of such days to 17 per year on average.


By the end of the century, an estimated 970,000 people would be exposed to a heat index above 90 degrees Fahrenheit for the equivalent of two months or more per year. By limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, all residents would avoid such days of extreme conditions. 


Historically, there have been zero days per year on average with a heat index above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This would increase to six days per year on average by midcentury and 19 by the century’s end. Of the cities with a population of 50,000 or more in the state, Dover and Nashua would experience the highest frequency of these days. Limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels would cap the frequency of such days at two per year on average.


Both the Globe and the Union Leader wrote articles highlighting the report’s findings, to their credit. But neither article echoed the Union of Concerned Scientists’ oft-repeated point that only limiting temperature rise 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels can prevent such calamitous outcomes. And neither publication mentioned global warming as a likely causal factor in the death of the chickens—given that the heat index got up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit the day the doomed birds perished—in their coverage of that story. Even though the UCS report states that the historic average number of days with a heat index over 100 in New Hampshire is “zero.”


This year there was at least one such day. So that isn’t normal. And although it’s difficult to peg particular weather events to global warming, it is thus definitely worth mentioning the strong possibility of a connection in this case. For a very good reason beyond the importance of keeping the societal discussion of global warming going hereabouts: The birds’ deaths add to a growing mountain of evidence that global warming is already beginning to threaten food production. 


Like it or not, chickens are an important part of our food supply. But increasingly severe weather caused by a swiftly-heating planet is triggering major floods, major droughts, devastating wind storms, vast wildfires, and the spread of once-tropical insects and diseases—all of which harm crops and food animals, and put our future food security at risk. As sea level rise is starting to impinge on growing lands in low-lying areas. Making the NH chickens the equivalent of canaries in a coal mine when it comes to warning us of the looming danger to planetary food supplies—and highlighting a major problem with allowing average temperatures to continue spiraling skyward.


However, the planet is not getting hotter on its own. It is heating up because governments and major corporations are allowing the amount of carbon that human civilization is burning in the form of oil, gas, and coal to continue to increase. Putting more and more carbon dioxide—the main greenhouse gas—into the atmosphere every year. Despite those same governments and corporations paying lip service to the importance of decreasing the amount of carbon we burn. While the scientific consensus is now agreeing that the only way for our civilization—and perhaps humanity itself—to survive the rolling apocalypse that is human-induced global warming is to bring the net amount of carbon emissions (after somehow deploying carbon capture technologies on an industrial scale) to zero by 2030. A mere decade hence.


Yet in June, Bloomberg reported that “Global carbon emissions jumped the most in seven years in 2018 as energy demand surged, according to BP’s annual review of world energy…” So even huge climate criminal multinationals are aware that carbon emissions have continued to climb unabated—except for a short period after the 2008 financial collapse when manufacturing and transport slowed for a time across the globe.


All of which is to say that journalists need to do a much better job of covering global warming and its many dangerous effects. Too many stories like the sad premature death of the NH chickens do relate to climate change. But that critical angle too often goes unmentioned. And people then go about their daily lives thinking that global warming is something that will only affect humans in the far future or not at all.


WBUR just ran an interesting story on a network of major news outlets in Florida—a traditionally conservative state gradually coming to a political consensus that climate change is real—that have committed to collaborative coverage of the very obvious and constant effects of global warming in that low-lying subtropical farm state. Reporters and editors at those operations have decided that it’s their responsibility to work together to give this most dangerous of crises the constant attention it deserves.


And that’s clearly something that we need to do here in New England. 


Especially in the Bay State, where the Union of Concerned Scientists projections are even more dire: “Historically, the heat index has topped 90 degrees in Massachusetts seven days a year, on average.” But if there is no global action to significantly lower carbon emissions, that number would increase to “an average of 33 days per year by mid-century and 62 by century’s end.” Furthermore, the Commonwealth “currently averages no days when the heat index tops 100 degrees,” but without changes to global emissions that figure would rise to “10 days by mid-century and 26 days by century’s end.”


So I’m writing to commit DigBoston to three things.


First, this publication is going on record in joining the environmental movement aimed at slowing human-induced global warming—stopping it no longer being possible. My colleagues and I accept the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is a terminal threat to Earth’s biosphere and to our species. 


Second, we will strive to run more and better coverage of global warming in our own pages. And we will do everything we can to provide regular information on ways people can join together to build the movement to mitigate it.


Third, we are declaring our desire to help start a consortium of news outlets interested in working collectively to improve and expand coverage of global warming in New England. Alternatively, we will happily join an existing effort along those lines, should one we’re unaware of be underway.


Environmental journalists interested in writing for us—and environmental activists and organizations that wish to submit op-eds—are invited to email Chris Faraone and me with pitches at


And editors, publishers, and producers of news outlets interested in starting talks aimed at creating a reporting consortium on global warming in New England are strongly encouraged to contact us at the same email address.


We’re all overdue to take such steps. But journalists in the northeastern US can help change a lot more hearts and minds about the need to make slowing climate change a societal priority, if we work together. 


Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.


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City government continues issuing reports while UN calls for immediate action


October 24, 2018



When writing about human-induced global warming on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to pace oneself. Because it’s such a relentlessly depressing topic that highlighting it too often can backfire. Faced with an existential threat of such magnitude that human civilization—and perhaps the human race itself—may well be doomed, people have a tendency to just tune out. Figuring that “we may indeed be doomed, but not just yet.” Which reflects a serious misunderstanding of how doom works. And more importantly, neglects to factor in how the avoidance of thinking about approaching doom makes its swift arrival all the more certain. By cultivating inaction, when immediate and militant action is called for.


Be that as it may, there are times when journalists like myself cannot just let a notable happening pass without comment. And Mayor Marty Walsh’s global warming-related press conference of last week was certainly such a one.


In keeping with previous junkets on the same theme, Walsh rehearsed yet another version of the same report he’s been trotting out for the last couple of years. This time entitled “Resilient Boston Harbor.” Where the fashionable foundation buzzword “resilient” stands in for “doing the cheapest, least effective thing possible.” Since like previous versions the report:

1) doesn’t propose binding regulation to force the corporations responsible for the lion’s share of carbon emissions in Boston to do what is necessary to make the city carbon neutral by its target date of 2050

2) continues to use lower estimates for threats like sea level rise and ever-increasing air temperature rather than higher credible estimates when planning city responses, and

3) doesn’t set hard timetables for actually building the limited defensive measures it does call for… measures that basically assume that efforts to make Boston—and every significant polity on the planet—carbon-neutral will fail.


Most everything the city might do to achieve carbon neutrality and adapt to the negative effects of global warming—beyond generating more reports—is conveniently pushed off to a time well after the Walsh administration is likely to be out of office.


Worse still, the new Boston paper got released just days after a devastating new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was published by the United Nations—which says if governments worldwide haven’t made their nations carbon-neutral by 2040, then humanity has no hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius. Meaning that we’re on track for the far worse scenarios of 2 degrees celsius of warming and above… that IPCC report authors say will be much more destructive to multiple planetary systems than previously anticipated. Making Boston’s current plans even more inadequate than they already are.


In fact, the only mention of completed (or nearly completed) climate remediation efforts in the press release for the “Resilient Boston Harbor” report is a brief passage indicating that “a deployable floodwall system has been installed across the East Boston Greenway, and a section of Main Street in Charlestown is being elevated.” And most every proposed initiative in the report itself is still in the planning stages. Lots of nice drawings of all the stuff that hasn’t been built yet, though.


However, according to the Boston Herald, there was one bright spot the day of the mayor’s presser when “a group of East Boston residents stormed City Hall Plaza, demanding that he hear their concerns about Eversource’s proposal to put a substation near Chelsea Creek.”


It seems that the local environmental justice group GreenRoots has been trying to meet with Walsh for about a year to attempt to stop regional power utility Eversource Energy from building the structure. To no avail.


A petition to Walsh being circulated by the group on on the matter makes it clear why: The high-voltage substation is slated to be built in an area around Chelsea Creek (a.k.a. Chelsea River) that’s flooding more and more frequently because of global warming-induced sea level rise. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, a similar station was flooded—causing it to explode and burn. A bad enough outcome in the best of circumstances.


But the Chelsea Creek substation will be located very close to storage tanks holding over eight million gallons of jet fuel for nearby Logan Airport. Should those be ignited by such an explosion, the effect on surrounding neighborhoods would be catastrophic. In both human and environmental terms.


The GreenRoots petition concludes: “We find it odd that your office has pushed for many sustainability initiatives concerning the Creek when this project isn’t compatible with this vision.” The initiatives include measures meant to reduce flooding from sea level rise on Chelsea Creek by “connecting high points near Boardman Street and Eagle Street,” according to the city’s 2016 Climate Ready Boston report. Although that is not mentioned in the latest report.


The Herald reported that Walsh’s office responded with a brief statement: “‘The substation in East Boston will better support East Boston’s growing population and facilities, including the city’s investments in a new police station, ambulance bay and a public works facility,’ adding that the city worked with Eversource to choose the site.”


The mayor has not yet agreed to meet with GreenRoots. Yet he really should. Because how is the public supposed to take any of his administration’s global warming remediation initiatives seriously when he’s still playing politics as usual with a major energy distribution corporation for a project that could have profound negative environmental effects?


“The city worked with Eversource to choose the site,” the city statement says. Lovely. But how much did it work with the East Boston community? And the grassroots environmental advocacy group working there and in neighboring Chelsea? Beyond the dog-and-pony shows necessary to put the barest sheen of democracy on the “Climate Ready Boston” process of which the “Resilient Boston Harbor” report is part? Not much at all, apparently. Basically Eversource wants the substation at Chelsea Creek. And it’s going to get what it wants in the current corporate-dominated political moment.


If Walsh is willing to kowtow to that big company on an issue of such serious environmental import, then why should anyone expect him to put the kind of political pressure necessary on other major Boston-area corporations that will be needed to make the city carbon-neutral and better prepared for global warming-induced disaster by 2050? Let alone 2040.


This is the guy who never saw a huge city government giveaway to major companies like General Electric during his tenure in office that he wouldn’t support. What could possibly make him change his modus operandi for conducting business as usual? Which is “give the corporations whatever they ask for—big tax breaks, free services, and public funds—and try to get a few crumbs for working families around the edges of any ‘deals’ thus cut.”


The obvious answer is that concerted grassroots political action will be required to pressure Walsh and politicians like him the world over to do the right thing consistently on the global warming front. Which is a herculean task, if attempted in one go.


But rather than take on the world’s global warming emergency all at once, Boston-area readers can send a message to Walsh that the old politics will not stand if he wants to remain in the mayor’s office—by signing the GreenRoots petition and getting involved in the fight to stop the Eversource substation from being built in environmentally sensitive Chelsea Creek.


Then folks can plug into the growing number of local battles to bring environmentally destructive natural gas utilities like National Grid and Columbia Gas to heel.


And along the way, a political movement may coalesce that can force Boston city government to take stronger long-term action to stop all activities that add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere—while saving the city from global warming-induced sea level rise and the many other deleterious effects of climate change that have already begun at our current 1 degree celsius average air temperature increase planetwide since the dawn of the industrial era.


But human society had best not take too long with such activist baby steps. Because the IPCC report is quite clear: If we have not taken giant leaps toward global carbon neutrality by 2030—only 12 years from now—then there will be no hope of stopping warming at the Paris Climate Agreement’s “aspirational target” of 1.5 degrees celsius by 2040.


If we can’t do that, then cities like Boston will have bigger crises to worry about than “just” accelerating sea level rise and ever-higher average air temperature. We will have stepped off the ecological precipice… and our doom will be upon us.


Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.